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The first time I was introduced to the concept of empathy was during a talk about leadership systems and structures. Andy Stanley was talking about how our church’s cultures create behaviors, and led by saying that when we watch the news and see mass genocide happening in other countries we think “how could those people possibly do that?” Stanley claimed that if we understood the system those people lived in all their life, if we lived in those peoples’ shoes from the day they were born, their actions would make complete sense. For those people, their actions are the most rational response possible to the world around them.

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I had never heard this before. Was Stanley right? Would other people’s behaviors make sense if I fully saw the world through their eyes? And if so, didn’t that mean I was condoning their behavior? If systems created actions was that excusing away sin? I was deeply bothered by what Stanley was suggesting, but I also found myself drawn in. It was as though someone was offering me one of the greatest pastoral skills possible–the ability to deeply understand the behavior of people around me–but at an enormous cost.

I’m not as bothered by these questions today. As a matter of fact I’ve become convinced that Stanley was largely right, and that empathy–which is what Stanley was describing–is one of the most important traits a church leader can have, and one of the linchpins of a healthy church culture. But empathy is often misunderstood, so we’re going to discuss three false beliefs some people have about empathy.

Misconception #1: Empathy is a cultural fad

Empathy is one of culture’s favorite buzzwords at the moment, tossed around in everything from politics, to pop culture, to business strategies. It’s easy to be cynical about it empathy, especially when it’s used to simultaneously mean nothing and condone everything. It is certainly a concept that, when misunderstood, can be very harmful. And yet I would argue much talk about empathy doesn’t really understand it at all.

Empathy, when properly understood, is not about condoning someone’s behavior, or even sympathizing with the behavior, but deeply understanding why the behavior exists. It is a powerful and irreplaceable attribute of God’s people that creates humility in us, as we understand the humanity of those we disagree with.

Empathy is something we see Jesus model consistently. He empathizes with the woman caught in adultery, even though she had sinned. He empathizes with Jerusalem, as he stands looking over the city and says “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” He empathizes with the woman at the well, with Nicodemus, and especially with his own torturers when on the cross he says “father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Empathy, in other words, isn’t a fad, but central to the way of Jesus.

Misconception #2: Empathy is sympathizing with sin

In his TED Talk, Digital Creator Dylan Marron says “Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your deepest beliefs and endorsing theirs. It just means I’m acknowledging the humanity of someone raised to think differently.”

This is vitally important. Empathy does not equal endorsement. Empathy does not say “what you are doing is okay” but “I understand why you think it’s okay, even though I passionately disagree.” Empathy is encapsulated in the famous saying from 16th century church reformer John Bradford, who while watching criminals being marched to their execution said “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Empathy keeps us from standing in judgment of others. It eliminates all possibility of pharisaical behavior and self-righteousness. Empathy refuses to treat others as less human, less logical, or less valuable than ourselves. It allows us to see sin, but also imagine the imago dei that remains stamped on each human being.

Misconception #3: Empathy makes leaders weak

While few would say it out loud, there’s a mistaken mold of leadership society still believes: that leaders stand above their staff or flock, emotionless and stern, and say the hard things and make the hard decisions. From this point of view, empathy feels like a leadership roadblock. Empathy forces you to see things in shades of gray, to understand others’ points of view, to feel compassion. Doesn’t empathy make a leader weak?

The answer depends on how you view leadership. If you view leadership from a dollars and cents, vision-casting, growth model, then empathy will get in the way. But if we are called to be shepherds, if our job is to feed Jesus’s sheep, then empathy isn’t just helpful, it’s integral.

I firmly believe when we empathize with someone, especially if we disagree or are in conflict with them, we are growing close to the heart of God. We are seeing people not as obstacles to be surmounted, but as people beloved by our Father in heaven. We are not leading over people when we have empathy, we are down in the trenches with them.

Empathy, then, is our most valuable leadership tool. It keeps us humble. It increases our compassion. And it brings us closer to God’s heart for those around us.

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